FRI: Lawmakers And Pueblos Seek Pause On Chaco Drilling, + More

Aug 28, 2020

Pueblos, Lawmakers Ask For Pause On New Mexico Drilling Plan - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

A coalition of Native American tribes and members of New Mexico's congressional delegation are asking federal officials for more time to consider a proposal that would govern oil and gas drilling and other development near Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site has served as a rallying cry for environmentalists and pueblos that have been trying to stop drilling in the San Juan Basin. They say there are culturally significant sites outside the park's boundaries that could be compromised.

The Interior Department earlier this year agreed to extend the comment period and more virtual meetings are being held this week, with the first session dedicated to the Navajo Nation.

The Navajo Nation has jurisdiction over much of the land that surrounds the park. The checkerboard also includes federal, state and private land.

The Navajo Nation has come out in support of creating a permanent buffer around the park, albeit smaller than what the pueblos and environmentalists are calling for since royalties from development on tribal land and parcels owned by individual Navajos are an important source of revenue.

A meeting also was held Thursday with the pueblos and other tribes. The sessions will wrap up Saturday with one for the general public.

The All Pueblo Council of Governors during Thursday's virtual meeting called for the U.S. Interior Department to pause all activities and deadlines related to the proposed management plan until the coronavirus pandemic ends.

Fires Serve As Reminder Of Risk For New Mexico Communities - By Cedar Attanasio AP/Report For America

A wildfire burning outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, hasn't caused much harm beyond spewing smoke into surrounding communities over recent days.

But while the blaze along Rio en Medio is slowing down, fire officials say the overall risk of wildfires in New Mexico and across the West is getting worse.

Some homeowners see the fire as an opportunity to raise awareness and spur action among their neighbors.

They're also pushing for plans to expand escape routes as an increasing number of Santa Fe County residents live in dry, overgrown areas along the forest's edge.

Local officials say county roads offer few escape routes that could be overwhelmed in an emergency, much like what happened in Paradise, California, in 2018.

Ignited by lightning, the fire was spotted Aug. 17 less than a couple miles from the village of Rio en Medio. The rugged area is bordered by two streams and is full of fuel that includes conifer and ponderosa pine.

Aside from the challenging terrain complicating firefighting efforts, the monsoon season that would have typically helped to dampen conditions has failed to produce much rain, leaving soil and fuel moisture levels very low for this time of year.

GOP Delegates Must Self-Quarantine In New Mexico, State Says - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Political party delegates from New Mexico who traveled to the Republican National Convention and President Donald Trump's speech at the White House are obligated to self-quarantine as they return home to a state that requires face masks and limits public gatherings.

A spokeswoman for Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday said the delegates are subject to the state's current 14-day self-quarantine provision that applies to most travelers as they enter or return to New Mexico.

The precaution is based on the incubation period of the coronavirus. New Mexico is relaxing its stay-at-home order gradually as the spread of COVID-19 slows across much of the state.

The mandate did not apply to Democrats, including the governor, because they attended their party's national convention remotely by video conference without leaving the state.

On Friday the state passed the 25,000 mark for the total number of COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began with 126 new cases.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

There were also three more deaths, including a woman in her 30s in Otero County. All three had underlying conditions. A total of 767 New Mexicans have died from COVID-related causes.

State GOP Chairman Steve Pearce said through a spokesman that he will follow the quarantine provision and is respectful of the law.

Plaintiffs In New Mexico Case Seek Plan For At-Risk Students - By Cedar Attanasio AP/Report For America

Plaintiffs in a landmark education lawsuit against the state of New Mexico are pressuring policymakers to develop and implement a plan for overhauling the state's education system.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs were speaking remotely in front of the Legislative Finance Committee during Friday's meeting in Red River.

Around 80% of the state's 330,000 students are considered at-risk under the lawsuit, which covers low-income, English-language-learning and Native American students.

The lawyers say the only way to resolve six-year-old lawsuit and ensure at-risk students are being served is for legislators to force the governor to act. 

Education Secretary Ryan Stewart gave examples Friday to legislators of programs he was implementing to address one aspect of the lawsuit: a lack of culturally and linguistically specific education for Indigenous children and English language learners.

Stewart told legislators that a significant portion of a recent $9 million pot of money sent to the education department for language curricular development is earmarked for Native American languages, of which there are over a dozen in the state.

Man Sentenced For Threatening New Mexico GovernorAssociated Press

A man who made threatening posts on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's official Facebook page has been sentenced to 14 months in federal prison.

The Albuquerque Journal reports that 33-year-old Daniel L. Mock had faced up to five years in prison after he previously pleaded guilty to interstate transmission of threatening communication.

But federal prosecutors agreed to the lower prison time because Mock hadn't taken any actions to carry out the threats. He was sentenced on Thursday. Lujan Grisham's security detail contacted the FBI.

Mock told agents he was "just blowing off steam" in the Facebook posts.

Prosecutor Jaymie Roybal said in a court filing that that while freedom of speech is enshrined in the First Amendment, it doesn't protect those who threaten to execute government officials.

New Mexico Eases Pandemic Restrictions As Virus Relents - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Health officials are relaxing pandemic lockdown restrictions to allow larger public gatherings of up to 10 people and provide limited access to museums with static displays. 

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the changes Thursday at a video news conference. 

The new public health order goes into effect Saturday with previously announced changes that restore limited indoor restaurant dining service for the first time in six weeks and allow greater attendance at indoor religious services.

A post-Labor Day return to part-time classroom learning for elementary school students will be limited to counties with low average rates of COVID-19 infection and positivity rates on virus testing.

To reopen classrooms, counties must have fewer than eight new daily cases on average per 100,000 residents, and positivity rate under 5%. The statewide average positivity rate is 2.1% — the lowest in the western U.S. 

If applied today, the threshold would put public school classrooms off limits in eight counties clustered in the southeast region of the state and the far southwestern boot-heel region. The southeast area has been a cradle of dissent concerning state public health orders on COVID-19. 

About one-fourth of school districts, including one of the nation's largest in Albuquerque, already have postponed in-person classroom learning until at least January. 

Lujan Grisham said her administration will defer to school districts on whether to resume classroom learning until there is an effective vaccine.

New Mexico To Get Federal Unemployment Boost - Associated Press

Unemployment insurance benefits are getting a $300 weekly boost from the federal government. 

The state Workforce Solutions Department announced Wednesday that its grant application for lost wage assistance was approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The $300 weekly increase applies retroactively to a three-week period beginning in late July. That's when a larger, $600 weekly federal supplement ran out. 

Standard unemployment benefits in New Mexico provide up to $461 weekly to individuals.

Suspect In Santa Fe High Athlete Death To Be Tried As AdultAssociated Press

A 17-year-old suspect will face adult charges in the death of a former Santa Fe High School basketball player killed about a month ago, a judge has ruled.

First Judicial District Judge T. Glenn Ellington ruled Wednesday that Estevan Montoya would be charged with murder, negligent use of a handgun, unlawful possession of a handgun and tampering with evidence.

"J.B." White died after being shot during a house party in Chupadero, north of Santa Fe, where several teenagers were allegedly drinking alcohol, prosecutors said.

A witness said during the hearing that he was inside the house trying to break up another fight when he heard a gunshot outside and that one his friends then said White had been shot.

Multiple witnesses testified against the suspected shooter, saying Montoya instigated the fight by approaching White.

Defense Attorney Dan Marlowe did not dispute who shot White but questioned who instigated the fight leading up to the shooting.

Montoya is being held at the San Juan County Juvenile Detention Facility.

New Mexico Nears 25,000 Coronavirus Cases As Restrictions Loosen - Associated Press 

State health officials Thursday announced 190 new virus cases and nine related deaths. That raises the pandemic tally to 24,920 cases and 764 deaths statewide.

New Mexico's seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate for COVID-19 has decreased over the past two weeks, going from 2.6% on Aug. 12 to 2.1% on Wednesday, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data collected by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. 

Comparing seven-day averages of new cases smooths out anomalies in the data, including delays in daily test results.

Navajo Nation Reports 4 New COVID-19 Cases And 1 More Death - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials have reported four new confirmed cases of COVID-19 with one more additional death. That brings the total number of people infected to 9,601 with the known death toll now at 499 as of Thursday. 

Navajo Department of Health officials say 93,565 people have been tested for the coronavirus and 7,027 have recovered. 

The Navajo Nation lifted its stay-at-home order on Aug. 16, but is asking residents to leave their homes only for emergencies or essential activities. 

Much of the Navajo Nation has been closed since March as the coronavirus swept through the vast reservation that extends into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.  

Navajo Nation Wants More Say Over Criminal Justice Matters - By Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Following the federal execution of one of its citizens, the Navajo Nation wants more say over criminal justice matters on its reservation in the U.S. Southwest.

Lezmond Mitchell, who is Navajo, was executed Wednesday at a federal prison in Indiana where he was being held. He was the only Native American on federal death row.

The Navajo Nation says the federal government violated the spirit of a law that allows tribes to decide whether to subject their citizens to the death penalty.

The Navajo Nation had asked President Donald Trump to reduce Mitchell's punishment to life in prison. As the execution neared, Trump took no action and courts declined to intervene.

The Navajo Nation said the situation highlights a need to restore tribes' ability to determine criminal justice matters on tribal land, especially when it concerns Native victims and Native perpetrators.

Jurisdiction now falls to a mix of agencies, including the tribe, that respond depending on the exact location of the crime and who is involved.

Tribal officials say they'll work with congressional leaders and advocacy groups to push for change.

Trump Sends In Agents As Albuquerque Struggles With Crime - By Russell Contreras and Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

President Donald Trump is seeking re-election on a tough-on-crime agenda and Albuquerque is one city he singles out for having high crime.

New Mexico's largest city is 10th in the nation for violent crime and ranks No. 2 for car thefts. Trump dispatched federal agents to the city last month, and federal officials say arrests are being made.

New Mexico Democrats have bristled at Trump's move, saying the city already is working with federal authorities on mandated police reforms. They blame Albuquerque crime on an officer shortage and the opioid epidemic.

Others say a judicial system revolving door puts repeat offenders back on the street.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller insists the city is making progress in addressing crime. He recently introduced the officials who will lead the city's new violence intervention program, saying it will help community members and law enforcement "find crucial common ground, build new relationships, and significantly reduce gun crime in their neighborhoods."

The latest non-preliminary federal crime statistics from 2018 show that Albuquerque's crime rate was more than 3.5 times the national average. An Associated Press analysis of violent crime rates per 100,000 people put Albuquerque as No. 10 in the nation, just behind Stockton, California. Detroit was No. 1.

Judge Blocks Rule That Moves Relief Funds To Private Schools - By David Eggert Associated Press

A federal judge in California has blocked a rule that Michigan and seven other states said would unlawfully allow too much pandemic relief aid to be diverted from K-12 public schools to private ones.

The decision temporarily halts the U.S. government from implementing the rule in eight states, including New Mexico, as well as Washington, D.C. and school districts in four large cities.

Judge James Donato ruled late Wednesday. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel says the money was meant to assist public schools most in need of financial support, but Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' policy "does the exact opposite."